For the third year in a row, I attempted to write a whole novel in the course of the month of November.
(Well, to be fair, 50,000 words is more of a novella. But, still.)
And, for the third year in a row, I failed. As my social media followers can already tell from the absence of #NaNoWriMo updates around week three, I tapered off ⅔ of the way through the month and 30,713 words into the novel.
Although I’m admittedly disappointed that I don’t have a hefty 50,000-word rough draft on my hard drive right now, I’m very glad to have gotten out every one of those 30,713 words. I also picked up a few lessons along the way.
1. (Fiction) Writing deserves its own rituals.
I knew going into this that I wanted to take it more seriously than I ever had before, so I made an effort to carve out a sacred NaNoWriMo zone in my life. For example, I stopped wearing nail polish for the whole month. (It might just be the longest I’ve gone without nail polish in 15 years!) In hindsight, doing my nails every few days would not have taken up that much time, but it was a symbolic gesture to show that superfluous activities were taking the back burner this November.
Other commitments were harder to get around. I do a lot of writing for work (clearly, considering my job is mainly freelance and ghost writing). Tacking on 2 or 3 more hours of writing, on the same computer, at the same desk, started to make the workday feel endless!
A few times I wrote elsewhere with a pen and paper out of necessity. Writing by hand was a nice differentiator between NaNoWriMo time and work time, and getting some fresh air away from my work space was an added bonus. I think there’s a lot to be said for using a change of scenery to cue a change of mindset. I can’t help but wonder if I would have won NaNoWriMo simply by using that method every day.
2. Writing at night is too risky.
Night is my favorite time for writing. After a productive day, there’s something so comforting about sitting down for a few undisturbed evening hours of creativity.
But quiet evenings started to become more of a luxury than a guarantee. Other activities popped up to take priority: birthday parties, family dinners, holiday get-togethers. Not to mention less fun claims on my time, like emergencies, and work projects with looming deadlines. One by one my nights started to get gobbled up. Even when I did get a free evening again here and there, I had lost my momentum.
At the heart of it, writing at night offered no safety net. There was no “later.” If the demands of the day crept into the evening hours, then that day’s writing time wouldn’t be postponed – it was canceled. A few times I forced myself to stay up until the truly wee hours to meet my daily word count, and it just wasn’t worth it: the writing was crummy, and my schedule would be even more out of whack the next day.
3. I really can write long-form fiction.
In prior NaNoWriMos, my Achilles’ heel was a lack of discipline. I’ve given this story a lot of thought over the years, staging a few scenes in particular over and over again in my imagination. Unsurprisingly, those scenes were a breeze to type up. But then it would get tricky connecting one major plot point to the next, and I would give up. I’d slice and dice the would-be novel into a couple of decent short stories and leave it at that. Not so this time!
What made the difference? I didn’t wait around for inspiration to strike. I put in the hours. I had my outline of where I knew the story would go, and forced myself to write it properly, in chronological order, straight through the patches that were tough or boring. I didn’t skip ahead to the interesting parts. I didn’t stop because I ran out of things to say.
And the words showed up. Sure, there are plenty of sections that are weaker, clunkier than others, but it was a huge relief to know that I could nudge the plot along with a little effort.
4. Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing.
The camaraderie of NaNoWriMo is probably the best part of the whole endeavor. Everyone cheers each other on via social media. There are cool essays about writing by famous authors circulated by the NaNoWriMo team, and I absolutely love reading those kinds of pieces. Plus, the local in-person events sound really fun! I’m disappointed that I didn’t make it to any in the Boston area. (Another change that might have helped me see it through.)
I took my interactivity to the next level this year, posting my word count on Instagram, Twitter and Google+ every day. The response from friends meant a lot to me, both when congratulating me, and when asking me what went wrong! A little accountability goes a long way.
5. Creative writing makes my life better.
Over the course of the first 20 days of November, I kept hearing the same comment over and over: “You seem so happy!” And for the last 10 days of November, that refrain turned into, “Yikes, where did that good mood go?” Plunging into NaNoWriMo felt so fulfilling, and that positive attitude touched every part of my life. I missed it when it was gone. As usual, it made me wonder why I ever let myself give up on creative writing!
I think my NaNoWriMo failed this year because I couldn’t quite decide if it was work or play. I scheduled it like it was just for fun, being too frivolous with time, but I wrote like I was still at work, which became a drain. Looking ahead, I feel better prepared to see my fiction aspirations through to completion. I’ll write in the morning, so it definitely gets done. I’ll write by hand, and head out to different parts of the house or – gasp! – out in the wide world to libraries or cafés. The exercise will be totally distinct from work-writing. I’ll keep plugging along, hitting my daily word counts, even if the words don’t feel inspired. That’s what second drafts are for.
And hopefully, sooner rather than later, my word count will increase by 100,000 or so, and I can finally claim victory over fiction.